Spider-Man: No Way Home

Posted on December 14, 2021 at 12:12 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action/violence, some language and brief suggestive comments
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic-book/fantasy peril and violence, characters injured and killed, very sad death, some graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021
Date Released to DVD: April 11, 2022

Copyright Sony 2021
Spider-Man: No Way Home” is everything a comic book movie should be, filled with excitement, heart, humor, and details to delight the fans. There were audible gasps of joy and more than a few tears in the audience when I saw it, and some of them were mine.

It is tough to say much more without spoilers, but I am going to try. I recommend that you see the movie before reading the rest of the review, though, if you want the delight of all of the surprises. Then come back here and see what I have to say to find out if you agree.

It takes off where “Spider-Man: Far From Home” left us, with the public revelation that Spider-Man is high school student Peter Parker. Now, helicopters are hovering outside of the apartment Peter (Tom Holland) shares with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). Blowhard J. Jonah Jameson (J.K Simmons) is a Limbaugh/O’Reilly-style media personality who calls Spider-Man a terrorist and vigilante, leading to public protests. Aunt May, Spidey’s best friend and “chair guy,” Ned (Jacob Batalon) and girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) are all being harassed. Almost as painful, his high school teacher has set up something of a shrine and the principal tries to reassure him by telling him he is welcome to swing through the halls or crawl on the ceiling.

Peter cannot live his life or help anyone else in this situation, so he goes to one of the other Avengers for help: Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). What he needs is a way to make everyone forget they know his secret identity. Strange agrees to help, but Peter interrupts the spell and something goes wrong.

Spoiler alert, last warning: this opens up a portal to the multi-verse, and that lets in some of the classic Spidey villains, including my all-time favorite, Doc Oct (Alfred Molina). There is also an appearance by my least favorite Spider-Man villain, but this film gives him a vastly better role. This leads to some show-stopping confrontations, staged with exceptional dynamism, pacing, and even wit. There are some very funny moments when the super-villains refer to each other as “a brilliant scientist” and when they compare notes. “You fell into something? I fell into something!”

There are more delicious meta-moments, but it is all anchored by real emotion. Peter is a teenager, so the anguish of college applications and the drama of first love are as wrenching as the battles with supervillains to save the planet. Just as the previous entry upended the usual structure of the superhero/supervillain conflict, this one remixes it again, raising the fundamental question about what it is we want or should want from those battles, but cleverly letting us have it both ways. Peter’s mentor, Tony Stark, is gone, and so the person he seeks help from is Dr. Strange. Like Stark, he is arrogant and impatient but not unmoved by Peter and he provides some critical (in both senses of the word) direction, ordering Peter, Ned, and MJ to “Scooby-Doo this s**t.” If it glosses quickly over the actual problem-solving (requiring chemical stuff and mechanical stuff and computer stuff) it’s fine because we would not want to watch that for too long when there are action scenes ahead and they are bangers.

Peter gets some guidance and support from an unexpected source that adds to the humor and to the emotional heft of the story, touching on love, loss, chance, and regret and, as they say in “The Good Place,” what we owe each other. What Marvel/Sony/Columbia owes the audience is a terrific comic book movie, and they have delivered.

NOTE: Stay all the way through the credits for TWO extra scenes.

Parents should know that this film features extended superhero/fantasy peril and violence. Characters are injured and killed and there is a very sad death and discussion of loss and regret. There is some strong language and a kiss.

Family discussion: Was Aunt May right about second chances? What was the most important thing Peter learned from his counterparts?

If you like this, try: the entire Spidey-verse of movies, including the three each for Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield and the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

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Eternals

Posted on October 31, 2021 at 9:39 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, brief sexuality, and some language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended superhero peril and violence, many characters injured and killed, scary monsters, weapons, some disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Exceptionally diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: November 6, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 14, 2022

Copyright Marvel Studios 2021
I’m sorry to tell you The Eternals is a mess. I’m sorry because I like Marvel movies and I like the writer/director Chloé Zhao and I wanted to love it.

I did almost love parts of it, but other parts are truly disappointing which is why it is a mess. At least that is better than being bad. I’m not sure anyone could have made it work. It is like calling up the Low-A baseball team to play in a World Series game, leaving us all sitting there in an enormous Major League Baseball stadium watching a team that is just not up to that kind of attention. It might have been nice to see these second-tier Marvel characters in a lower-key, lower-budget setting instead of the massive, time and place-hopping heavily CGI’d epic that keeps threatening to overshadow the characters as we try to remember which one has which powers and how they all relate to each other.

It does not help that we have spent 26 films over 14 years to get to know the most powerful superheroes on the planet (in the MCU’s version) and we are now told that there’s another bunch of superheroes we have not seen before who are even more powerful. The reason we have not seen them before is they’re in theory not allowed to interfere with human matters. They have been on earth since its earlier beginning with just one job, to fight some monsters called, not very imaginatively, deviants. They look like they’ve been made out of flexible steel pipes. They were sent by a God-like Celestial called Arishem. We see them at different points in human history, fighting deviants, learning to use their powers, bickering, and occasionally interfering in human affairs by helping out with some advanced technology.

In the present day, the group has split up, so, like “Avengers: Endgame” there is a long getting-the-band-back-together section, but in this case we don’t have a 20+ movie investment in the characters so it is more about providing an opportunity to introduce the Eternals and provide some comic relief. That welcome respite comes from newly-buff Kumail Nanjiani, who has become a Bollywood movie star (his dance number is a treat).

There are so many characters and so many powers and so many run-ins and conflicts and shifts that there simply is not room to go into them, so I’m going to summarize some of the film’s strengths and weaknesses instead of trying to recap even the basics of the characters and storyline.

Strength: the cast is excellent and it is a delight to see this group of first-rate performers, one of the most diverse in any film in any category, doing their best and having fun. Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie is Thena, an Eternal who sometimes has a breakdown and starts attacking the others instead of the divergents. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has a powerful punch, but he spends centuries caring for Thena and their scenes together are touching. Gemma Chan of “Crazy Rich Asians” plays a sometime leader of the group with grace.

Weakness: there are too many characters, even for a movie that is more than 2 1/2 hours long (including the TWO credit sequences).

Strength: the cinematography is beautiful. Some people will disagree, but I thought the delicate gold filigree-like effects indicating the Eternals’ powers are lovely.

Weakness: The specifics and distinctions of the various powers are not as clear as they should be, and the same goes for the creatures they are fighting. We need a clearer idea of the stakes to understand the fight scenes.

Weakness: Speaking of stakes, the perameters of the Eternals’ mission it fuzzy as well. They’re not supposed to interfere with the affairs of humans. Except kind of sometimes.

Strength: The diversity of the characters was outstanding. It was organic, never artificial, and added enormously to the storyline.

Conclusion: It’s too long. It doesn’t hold together. Its actors are stronger than their characters. It looks lovely.

Parents should know that this movie has extended fantasy/superhero peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and references to real-life events like the bombing of Hiroshima. There is some strong language and an explicit sexual situation.

Family discussion: Which of the Eternals do you like the best? Which powers would you like to have? What should you know before following someone’s instructions?

If you like this, try: the comics and the other Marvel movies

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Posted on August 31, 2021 at 12:47 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended peril and violence, martial arts, weapons, explosions, monsters, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 3, 2021

(L-R): Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Marvel’s first Asian superhero gets an exciting, heartfelt origin story in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” The character first appeared in 1973, created by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, inspired by the television series “Kung Fu,” and the career of Bruce Lee, which had created a great interest in Chinese martial arts. In the comics, he was originally the son of the already-established ultra-villain Fu Manchu.

In this version, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is the son of Wenwu (Chinese acting legend Tony Leung), who uses the power of 10 magic rings to cause massive death, destruction, and pillage over centuries. After they fight as she defends her community from his invasion, Wenwu falls in love with Jiang Li (Fala Chen) and for a time they have a peaceful life together, until she is murdered by Wenwu’s enemies.

Shang-Chi and his sister (Meng’er Zhang as Xialing) are raised to be warriors, knowing nothing of their father’s past. After his mother’s death and his discovery of his father’s evil actions, Shang-Chi runs away, as far as he can get from his home and family. He is working in San Francisco as a parking valet under the name Sean with his best friend Katy (the indispensable Awkwafina). They are both low key slackers who ar enjoying their lives when trouble tracks Shang-Chi down on an articulated bus, the kind with two parts connected by an accordion-like pivoting joint. In other words, it is just the place for a wow of a fight scene, and a wow is what we get. Keep an eye on the combatant with a steel blade prosthetic on his arm. That is the aptly named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) and we’ll be seeing a lot more of him.

The script, by director Destin Daniel Cretton along with Andrew Lanham and Dave Callaham gives emotional weight to the action with its focus on the family conflicts, especially the struggle — sometimes emotional, sometimes physical — between father and son. But first, Shang-Chi reunites with his estranged sister, involving a cage fight with a monster. Ultimately, it brings him home in a literal and emotional sense as he returns to the land his mother once guarded so bravely, Ta Lo. It is a place of peace and gentility, with the entire community devoted to keeping a powerful, evil creature imprisoned there. Wenwu’s original attack on Ta Lo was to release the monster. And now he returns, in part because one of the creature’s powers is to call out to powerful people who could release it in the voice of someone they loved and lost.

Shang-Chi, Xialing, and Katy find themselves back in Ta Lo, where their late mother’s sister Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) helps them create a defense to protect their home and prevent the release of the monster, leading up to a final confrontation that will involve emotional growth, strengthened connections, and a lot of marital arts fighting. Plus a monster.

The action scenes are exciting and revealing of character and the performances are excellent, especially Leung, who makes a complicated and sometimes inconsistent character layered and — for a supervillain — real. I am, as ever, impressed with Marvel’s Kevin Feige for his willingness to allow each of the Marvel characters to appear in distinctive stories across a range of tones and genres and yet somehow make them all feel like part of the same world. Shang-Chi is a welcome addition to the MCU and I look forward to seeing him interact with the other characters as they take on whatever and whoever is threatening the planet next.

Parents should know that this film has extended and sometimes graphic peril and violence with a lot of martial arts action, chases, explosions, monsters, weapons, and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: Why did Shang-Chi and Xialing respond differently to their childhood experiences? Why was she so angry with him?

If you like this, try: the other Avengers origin movies including “Iron Man,” “Ant-Man,” and “Captain America”

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The Suicide Squad

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense and gory violence with many disturbing and bloody, graphic images, characters injured and killed, comic book violence, guns, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 6, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers
Just to clarify: the 2016 film with Will Smith and Margot Robbie about the imprisoned DC Comics villains who are assembled into a “Dirty Dozen”-style team by a tyrannical official from a secret government agency is called “Suicide Squad.” This 2021 reboot is called “The Suicide Squad.” Got it?

“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” writer/director James Gunn takes over the franchise, and this is even more insouciantly nasty than the first one, relishing the carnage and ebulliently transgressive. Even the Warner Brothers logo is written in blood.

Viola Davis returns as Amanda Waller, who demonstrates her ruthlessness up front by delivering on her threat to detonate a chip that explodes the head of one of her supervillains who disobeys an order. “I wouldn’t take such extreme measures if this mission wasn’t more important than you could possibly imagine,” she says. It is “potentially cataclysmic for America and the world.” In other words, the ends justify the ultra-destructive means, including giving her license to murder her charges, not to mention giving them license to murder as well.

There are some new characters this time, including some younger villains to make it possible to include some jokes about millennials, or stereotypes, depending on your perspective. This crowd is defined by their inability to play well with others, but that is intensified here by the animosity between two alpha males, the walking weapon Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and the walking heavy bag and ironically named Peacemaker (John Cena). Also on board for some or all of the mission are a shark with legs, a second-generation rat-master, a guy with some serious mother issues who emits lethal polka dots, and of course, in what she says is her last appearance in the role, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

We can understand why. For all its many failings, the first “Suicide Squad” and “Birds of Prey” gave Harley Quinn what she has too seldom been given, an interesting character. She was damaged. And she was a villain. But a vestigial trace of her past life as a psychologist and a woman wronged gave her some complexity and even sympathy. She’s not as interesting here, more naughty than truly provocative. This movie is more interested in how many ways a human body can be exploded, beheaded, sliced down the middle, and otherwise dismembered than it is in anything else with the possible exception of a lot of macho posturing. It also fails to make the stakes meaningful with a worthy villain. Understandable, I suppose; it’s hard to out-villain the temporarily good bad guys. So, it’s is colorful and entertaining but lightweight and unmemorable.

NOTE: Stay for a mid-credit scene with an un-surprising surprise.

Parents should know that this movie ie extremely vulgar and gory with constant, extremely bloody peril and violence and many characters injured and killed. Characters use constant very strong language and the movie includes nudity and sexual references, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Suicide Squad comic books

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Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins

Posted on July 22, 2021 at 5:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 (Sequences of Strong Violence|Brief Strong Language)
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended , intense, sometimes graphic violence, martial arts, guns, swords, hand-to-hand combat, fire, many characters injured and killed including a child seeing his father murdered
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 18, 2021

Copyright Paramount 2021
Paramount is trying to Avenger-ize the G.I. Joe story, starting with origin films for the characters, and that is how we get the awkwardly titled “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe” origins. Of course the real origin of G.I. Joe is a 1960s Hasbro doll, I mean action figure, and now, following the animated television series, comic books, and two movies, it is described as a media franchise. That franchise has a number of characters. Snake Eyes is the mysterious human weapon, a black belt in 12 martial arts disciplines and a master of all kinds of small arms including guns and swords. Following injuries in a previous mission he could no longer speak and he had facial scars which led him to wear a helmet that covered his face most of the time. Little was known about his background because it was “classified.” Until now.

“20 years ago, Washington State” we are told as the movie begins with a young boy and his dad walking through the woods. “Is there a safe in the house?” the boy asks. He overheard his father saying something about a safe house, referring to a cabin where they were staying. But it was not a safe house. Bad guys arrive and kill the boy’s father after forcing him to roll the dice for his life. They came up with two ones: snake eyes. The boy is left alone.

We then move to present day, when the fighter only known as Snake Eyes is in the middle of a no-holds-barred underground bout. Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) takes over for Ray Park, who played Snake Eyes in the previous “G.I. Joe” movies. After the fight, a man offers Snake Eyes a job with an offer he cannot refuse, the only thing he wants — the man who killed his father.

His new boss is a weapons smuggler. Things go very wrong, and he ends up saving the life of Tommy (Andrew Koji), the wealthy heir to the Arashikage family, a Japanese klan of ninjas. They escape together and in gratitude Tommy brings Snake Eyes to the Arashikage compound and says they will train him as a ninja — if he can pass three tests, administered by the Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and the Blind Master (Peter Mensah). If Snake Eyes does not pass, he will die.

The tests are among the films highlights, along with some wow-worthy chases and action sequences. The martial arts scenes are dynamic and a lot of fun, with split-second timing and astonishing skill. I also enjoyed the shifting loyalties, depending on the demands of the moment, and the other iconic G.I. Joe characters, Scarlett (a performance of verve and wit from Samara Weaving) and the Baroness (Úrsula Corberó having a lot of fun).

Notice I did not mention the acting or the dialogue, neither of which are worth mentioning. There are some fortune cookie-isms like “If your heart is pure, our secrets will reveal themselves to you.” And I am not persuaded that the G.I. Joe-iverse can match the range of the MCU. But when it comes to summer action blockbusters, this one does the trick.

Parents should know that this is a very violent film with many characters injured and killed, featuring martial arts, guns, swords, fire, chases and explosions. It is what is called “action violence,” meaning not much gore or graphic images. A child witnesses the murder of his parent. There is brief strong language (one f-word).

Family discussion: How did the characters decide what their loyalties were? What did Snake Eyes learn from the first two tests? Do you agree with Sen’s decision about Tommy?

If you like this, try: the G.I. Joe movies and comics

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